Trash Talk #7 – The Cul de Sac’s and On Ramps of Social Change

Last week’s SCORAI conference (Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative) brought together over 100 academics and practitioners from many parts of the USA and Canada, to discuss the challenges of sustainable consumption, dematerialization, and what we need to do in practical terms to get there.

Among those gathered was Annie Leonard (Story of Stuff) who talked about ‘cul de sacs’ and ‘on ramps’ as telling metaphors on the trajectory of individual behaviour modification and the pressing need for broader, collective social change.

During conversations and sessions, Annie shared her growing interest in exploring why some individuals, when they become engaged around a particular sustainability-related issue, modify their habits connected to that issue, yet don’t necessarily see the connection nor build out from that ‘seed issue’ to explore other areas on their ‘sustainability horizon’ that beckon for change and further action.

In contrast, other individuals, when they become engaged in a seed issue, begin to see its inherent connection to other areas and begin to expand their engagement beyond the seed issue, scaffolding further habit modification, community involvement and action, related to a number of subsequent markers on their sustainability horizon.

In terms of behaviour change, the former group have entered a ‘cul de sac’ of social engagement; the seed issue that catalysed their modified behaviour remains isolated from other issues on their sustainability horizon. An individual in the cul de sac pattern might be stringent about recycling and reducing their waste at home, but may not discern the connection between their waste stream and their weekly shopping trips to the big box supermarket in their area.

The behaviour modification that drew them to recycle with rigour at home, stands alone in their repertoire of sustainable lifestyle choices. It has not necessarily led them to consider the connectedness and urgency of subsequent behaviour change related to other environmental or social issues.

For the latter group, the seed issue that propelled their behaviour change, becomes for them, the ‘tip of the ice-berg’. These individuals are entering the on ramp of social engagement. This change will be the first of many subsequent, altered habits and practices; it will continue to nudge and compel that individual to engage and adapt behaviour in other areas of their sustainability horizon.

For an individual entering the on ramp, a small initial act of sewing a few seeds of kale in their winter garden, might drive them, for example, to make other sustainable lifestyle choices, such as selling the family vehicle and joining the local car co-op?

In light of some of the environmental and social challenges facing us on the sustainability horizon, the scope and pace of collective behaviour change will require a move away from cul de sac’ing our isolated habits and community engagement, in favour of accelerated on ramp’ing and merging.

Following last weekend’s conference, I am keen to reflect on areas where I have detoured around an on ramp, opting instead for the comfort of a stroll around (and around and around!) a sustainability cul de sac, a dead end journey.

While daunting, no doubt, a rapidly moving freeway, is calling us to collectively move, morph and merge via any one of the numerous on ramps beckoning us to action.

What’s your on ramp? Waste reduction? Local Food? Transportation? Climate Change? Protecting the forests? Water conservation? Wildlife habitat preservation? Urban poverty?

The list is long and the time is ripe for some serious sustainable merging. Keep your eyes on the road and just pick a ramp!